A hairy woodpecker clings to a suet feeder. Credit: Bob Duchesne | BDN

Autumn arrived on Tuesday, as summer tiptoed out quietly. I guess it’s time to clean my bird feeders. Hmm…where did I leave the five-gallon bucket? What will it be this time? Hot soapy water? No, I think I’ll go with the weak bleach solution again – no stronger than one part bleach to nine parts water.

It’s a chore, but backyard bird feeders need periodic cleaning. Dirty feeders can spread disease. Anything that draws birds to a centralized location, where they then poop around a lot, can infect other birds. Plus, mold can build up in the bottom of my thistle feeders if I’m not paying attention… sometimes even when I am paying attention. So today’s the day I pull out my garden hose and get to work, even though it is a pain in the butt. I’ll rake the ground under the feeder, too, eliminating the hulls and seed waste that can also harbor disease.

I’ll clean the hummingbird feeder, then refill it, although my hummingbirds left a week ago. There’s always a chance that a rare hummingbird from the west will wander into Maine. It happens somewhere in the state every year. Maybe this will be my year to host a celebrity hummingbird. It’s a tiny chance, I’ll admit, but all it costs me is one-quarter cup of sugar.

I’ve already checked my seed bins. Because my black-oil sunflower seeds are still in their hard shells, they keep for a long time. I just need to make sure the lid is secure on the metal garbage can that I keep them in so that no mice enter. I have one “squirrel-proof” feeder that I fill exclusively with black-oil sunflower seeds, because it’s the seed favored by the chickadees, nuthatches, titmice and finches that most often visit my backyard. Striped sunflower seeds are larger, and bigger birds might enjoy them more, but they’ll settle for the black-oil. Black-oil seeds also have a higher meat-to-shell ratio, so it’s my favorite all-purpose feeder food.

I’d like to have a platform feeder in my yard. Cardinals and sparrows aren’t fond of hanging feeders that swing in the breeze. But I have too many squirrels and too few cardinals, and most of the seed would be wasted. That’s one battle I gave up years ago. There is no “right” mix of feeders. Every home has different opportunities and challenges, depending on location and habitat.

On the other hand, I have three feeders filled with Nyjer, also called thistle, even though it’s not really thistle. Nyjer is an unrelated thistle-like seed that’s imported mostly from Africa and India. Small finches love it. In winter, flocks of American goldfinches, pine siskins and common redpolls sometimes descend on my yard in big numbers, mobbing these feeders. They argue over every perch. For much of the year, however, all three feeders hang idly. Hence the need to check for mold.

I also take a whiff of the Nyjer stored in my garage. If not kept cool and dry, it can go rancid, and the sour odor is obvious. That’s an expensive mistake that’s happened to me once, but only once.

It seems every bird in the neighborhood knows where my suet feeder hangs. It’s there mostly for the woodpeckers, but the chickadees, nuthatches and titmice come in for an occasional nibble, and blue jays take a bigger bite now and then.

There is one hairy woodpecker who announces his arrival with great vigor. When he’s in the mood for a little suet, I can hear him calling from two houses away. He flies to a nearby tree, calls incessantly for another minute, and continues to call when he lands on the feeder. His mate is also noisy when she comes in. When I’m in the yard, they are positively insulted by my presence. They will keep up the noise until I walk away. I can’t believe I’m being chased away from my own backyard!

The downy woodpeckers also call while coming into the suet. Both species seem to get along OK. I never see the bigger hairy woodpecker chasing off the downy. Sometimes, they will perch on opposite sides of the suet and feed together.

It looks like it’s going to be a big winter for bird feeding. Canada’s forests produced only a meager crop of cones and catkins. Many finches are likely to come south in search of food. Red-breasted nuthatches are already wandering in big numbers. Maybe I better double-check my seed supply.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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